Summer solstice activies in Aotearoa

Picked up an unusual volume at a recent book fair, Celebrating the Southern Seasons: Rituals for Aotearoa by Juliet Batten (Tandem Press, 1995) and, since it’s the summer solstice in New Zealand, I thought I’d share some of the information from that section as an alternative to Christmas tinsel and jolly, fat blokes with white beards.

Not a kaka, but a bellbird amid flax flowers (Phormium tenax)  at Lake Manapouri. Photo: Sandra Simpson

By now [Maori] people … went out to gather honey, known as wai korari, from flax flowers, a great delicacy in a land without honey beesThe nectar was said to ebb and flow in the flowers in unison with the tide; at low tide it receded but at a spring tide it overflowed the edges of the flowerThe flowers would be picked at full tide and gently tapped on the sides of a gourd so the nectar would flow out. It was used for soaking and flavouring fern root, and in the South Island was mixed with para ti, the cabbage tree ‘sago’ (made from its roots and stems). An added bonus was that the kaka was now growing fat on flax honey, and could be caught for good eating.

In a footnote the author explains that while New Zealand has native bees, they are solitary and do not swarm like Euopean honeybees so don’t provide a collection point for honey.

Another summer activity was the gathering of raupo pollen. In the early morning or late evening, when the pollen was moister and less likely to blow away, a large group of adults and children would go down to the swamps. After picking, they would gently shake the flowering spikes into bark vessels to collect the fine, fluffy powder. The yellow pungapunga or pua (pollen) had a light, sweetish taste and was mixed with water or gently steamed to make gingerbread-like cakes.

The male flower at the top and the female seed-head beneath on a raupo stem (Typha orientalis). Photo: Harry Rose, via Wikipedia

The NZ Herb Federation clarifies that it’s the male flowers at the top of the spike that have the pollen, while the female spike develops below on the same stem and is tightly packed seeds with dense parachute hairs (pappus) facing outwards, to produce the distinctive velvety chocolate-brown seed head. Read more here. These downy seeds could be used to light a fire, while early Europeans also used them for stuffing pillows and mattresses.

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